Tag Archive: Papua New Guinea

Amidst the media frenzy surrounding the build-up to the imminent Euro 2012 tournament in Poland and Ukraine, the other side of the globe has seen Oceania’s premier international competition quietly get underway. The competitors expect nothing more – teams from the region’s confederation only seem to make the headlines once in a blue moon: European media has abandoned Oceania since reporting perennial minnows American Samoa’s first-ever victory in November of last year. It appears the only way to attract attention from the West is by being hilariously awful for most of your footballing history, before providing media outlets with the perfect underdog story by somehow mustering the firepower to record a rare triumph.

The OFC Nations Cup, Oceania’s equivalent of the Euros, has seen some remarkable stories since its beginning three days ago. With a place at the 2013 Confederations Cup in Brazil and progression to a World Cup qualification play-off at stake, all eight competitors have their eyes on the prize. Honiara, Solomon Islands – the host venue of the tournament – has impressed with both the enthusiasm of locals and the ability of the Lawson Tama Stadium, which will host every game, to cope with two matches every day.

The understated media presence – just two tournament commentators/analysts/presenters – provides a welcome, relaxed alternative build-up to an international tournament

Although favourites New Zealand have won both of their opening games, albeit narrowly, their poor performances in the merciless heat of the Solomons has fuelled neutral hopes that another nation can triumph this time around. Every previous edition of this tournament has seen either the All Whites or Australia (now competing in the Asian confederation) emerge victorious.

This year, however, New Zealand have struggled to a 1-0 win over fellow Group B heavyweights Fiji – considered to be second to New Zealand in the Oceanian rankings – in their opening game, thanks to an early goal from Ipswich Town defender Tommy Smith. This close game represents a stark contrast to the same fixture 30 years ago, when the Fijians were destroyed 13-0 in what remains New Zealand’s biggest-ever victory.

The favourites failed to improve in the second group game: a similarly uncomfortable 2-1 victory against an unfancied Papua New Guinea team has left the rest of the tourament’s teams sniffing a potential upset. New Zealand are the only Oceania nation capable of fielding numerous Europe-based players – Papua New Guinea’s closest equivalent, former Serie A triallist Nathaniel Lepani was not even included in his country’s 30-man squad.

Against PNG, New Zealand relied on goals from 2010 World Cup veteran Shane Smeltz and West Bromwich Albion forward Chris Wood to see them through, even conceding a (slightly dubious) late penalty for Tony Lochhead’s handball. Papua New Guinea’s squad is comprised solely of Oceania-based players, with the furthest-flung inclusions only plying their trade in New Zealand or the Australian lower leagues; the All Whites boast Premier League talent, Papua New Guinea have Brisbane Premier League stars.  NZ coach Ricki Herbert did his best to hide his disappointment, saying “It was just about getting through this one – it was  39 degrees pitchside today.” The heat has arguably reduced New Zealand’s ability to simply outclass their opponents, resulting in gritty, determined performances replacing previous edition’s comfortable wins where the team was able to simply stroll to victory.

Tahiti receive a warm welcome from the enthusiastic locals upon touchdown in Honiara

By selecting the environmentally-challenging Solomon Islands (for the NZ players, anyway), the Oceania Football Confederation appears to have finally found a way to create a relatively level playing field at its championships. The defection of Australia to Asia in 2006, citing Oceania’s restricting lack of competitiveness, had lead to competitions becoming even more one-sided: whereas previous spoils had been shared between Australia and New Zealand, the removal of the All Whites’ closest neighbours and rivals resulted in NZ starting tournaments as overwhelming favourites, miles ahead of their opponents in quality and preparation.

As Nathaniel Lepani told me last week, “On the face of it, New Zealand should just turn up at the tournament and walk away winners, such is the quality of their team of near fulltime professionals, compared to the majority of “amateurs” who make up the rest of the Pacific countries. But having the tournament hosted out of their comfort zone, always means the Kiwis are going to have to work for their win.” The difficult conditions in Honiara mean games between “New Zealand and the rest” will be more open, competitive and entertaining.

New Zealand will face increased competition this time around, as neutrals hope to see a new team celebrating come final day

Group A, meanwhile, has been dominated by an impressive Tahitian side that has taken maximum points from its opening two fixtures, including a 10-1 thrashing of tournament whipping-boys Samoa. With Vanuatu and New Caledonia hot on Tahiti’s heels and battling for second place, the final group fixtures over the next two days should provide plenty of drama and entertainment. Group A has also witnessed the Cup’s most exciting clash so far in the form of Tahiti’s thrilling 4-3 triumph over the nine-man New Caledonians. 3-0 and two men down, with less than 15 minutes remaining, New Caledonia launched an admirable fightback that was only ended by an 87th minute settler from Tahiti’s Roihau Degage. A perfect advert for Oceania football, this game had it all: penalties, red cards, handballs inside the box and late, late goals.

The Solomon Islands retain hope of progressing to the semi-finals, and are currently edging a disappointing Fiji team that has yielded just one point despite boasting talents such as Waitakere United’s Roy Krishna, hailed as “the best player in the [NZFC] league” by Oceania media.

Despite their struggles, New Zealand will remain the favourites to lift the Nations Cup and take another step towards qualification for the 2014 World Cup. However, the lack of national media coverage of events in Honiara – the NZ Herald failed to even include details of the tournament in its “Sports” section, preferring analysis of Maria Sharapova’s performance in the French Open – means that the country’s arrogance, confidence of victory, and apparent lack of concern over recent shortcomings leaves neutrals rooting for the underdogs even more. For the first time ever, a Nations Cup competition could be won by someone other than Australia and New Zealand.

At first glance, Papua New Guinea forward Nathaniel Lepani’s career may not appear to be particularly unique. Since beginning his footballing journey in 2001 with Cosmos Port Moresby, Lepani has flitted between his homeland and the upper echelons of Australia’s Brisbane Premier League, also enjoying a spell at USA college side Menlo Oaks in 2002-03.

However, what very few realise is that Lepani almost secured a contract with Italian club Brescia Calcio, then enjoying their best-ever campaign in Serie A by finishing 7th and boasting players such as Roberto Baggio and Andrea Pirlo. Lepani trialled, unsuccessfully, for the club’s primavera youth squad in May 2001, a time the man himself describes “the year where I pursued my professional dream.”

Had he succeeded, Nathaniel would have gone down in history as Papua New Guinea’s most successful export. Few footballers from the country stray from the Oceania region, with even the national team’s most adventurous players plying their trade in Australia or New Zealand.

That’s not to say his career since hasn’t seen brilliant highs, including scoring four times in a Pacific Games clash with Kiribati in September, representing his country against the likes of Australia (and facing up against ex-Fulham midfielder Ahmad Elrich and former Tottenham defender Spase Dilevski), and bagging a brace against Samoa just two days after his 22nd birthday in 2004.

Nathaniel cites a three-year stay in Belgium, from 1991-94, as a large influence on his eventual career in football. Flanders club Overijse Voetbal Club, currently in the Belgian fourth division, boasted the youngster’s talents in their U12 and U14 sides during his time in the country. Lepani describes the experience as one that “helped to cement my footballing upbringing” – the taste of European football from an early age has almost certainly given the current Gigira Laitepo Morobe attacker an advantage over his Papua New Guinean peers.

Helping to dispel the “uneducated and uncouth” stereotype that has plagued 21st-century footballers, Lepani has attended universities and colleges in his native PNG, Australia and America. This, combined with a high-ranking job in the Oceania branch of food processing giants Nestlé, has limited Lepani’s time for football, resulting in a “year out” from club football in 2004, and spells at lower-league clubs more convenient for someone juggling work, education and sport.

The rest of this interview contains more than enough evidence to prove his well-spoken nature and articulate views. Enjoy.

What is the highlight of your career, either at international or club level?

I have to at least mention my experience at Brescia Calcio for no other reason than what it showed me in terms of the “professional” approach to the game and all that it encompasses.  It was also a relatively humbling experience in that when we (Primavera) played the first team in a practice match, the top players would all arrive in their fancy sports cars, while us younger squad members were dropped off or caught public transport.

In saying that, though, I can’t go past the experience of being able to represent my country and lining up before the game and hearing the national anthem being played. Playing for PNG may not be the most “glamorous”,  but it’s still an absolute honor nonetheless. I’d have to say my highlights would be my first goals for PNG, at U20 level in Cook Islands at the Oceania U20s World Cup Qualifers in 2001. I had picked up a groin strain in our first training session, so had to carry that through the tournament. Despite starting against Vanuatu in our first game (a 6-0 loss), I was benched for our Cook Islands one. Coming on as a sub in the second half I played the “super sub” role and bagged two goals in my 25 minute performance. So those were my first goals in PNG colors.

 It’s always enjoyable scoring goals, and of course scoring 4 in one game against Kiribati was fulfilling and certainly worth mentioning as a highlight, but funnily enough the atmosphere in which we played that game was quite negative, and to be honest it wasn’t one of my most memorable experiences.

How did the trial at Brescia Calcio in 2001 come about? Not many PNG players make it to Europe, let alone Serie A…

Certainly not the most orthodox of ways. An Italian with close links to Brescia and other Italian Serie A and C clubs was working in PNG at the time.  Alongside a contact at Brescia Calcio (the team manager of the U16s), he set up a player agency with the objective of tapping into the Pacific Market for potential players to trial, and ultimately, play in Italy and possibly Europe as a whole.

I was fortunate that it was created at a time when I had just finished high school and had recently represented PNG at u20 level. So I had time and youth on my side, and had proven that I had the potential to succeed – which was the reason behind my selection. Admittedly as well, compared to the average Papua New Guinean, the means to support this trial was also a factor at the time, as I had to bear the costs of traveling to Bresica as well as room and board during the time there. I was one of two guys, Alex Davani being the second, who were selected to trial at Brescia from PNG.

Although it was reiterated to me that the trial could have lasted anywhere between a few days and a month, my month there showed me that I must have impressed enough for them to have kept me there during that time. While I was there 3 other trialists came and went, so during that time I was reassured that if the club had kept me there while other trialists came and went, then they must have seen something in me to keep me there.

“Lepani’s on trial with us, you say!?” Baggio’s place in football folklore lead to him being “cocooned” from the mere mortals

Did you meet former FIFA World Player of the Year Roberto Baggio or current Serie A stalwarts Andrea Pirlo and Daniele Bonera during your trial? And just how good are players at that level?

I was desperately hoping to meet Baggio. But as he was in his twilight of his career then and had already confirmed himself in the pantheon of footballing Gods, not only in Italy, but the world as well, he was unsurprisingly kept “cocooned” by what I observed. I recall that during our game against the top team, he was training by himself on the other field, under the watchful eyes of a physio (he was injured at the time, I recall) and a television crew from Japan. I do remember Bonera, although possibly due to my ignorance, did not recognise him for the player he was. Same for Pirlo, although admittedly he became the player he is during his time at Milan.

I would like to think that although I didn’t make the cut, I gave as good as other players that I trained and played with. However there was one player who I noticed to be a bit extra special, [Abderrazzak] “‘Razza” Jadid. He was with the Primavera squad at the time, but last I saw he had made the first team and was loaned out to a few other clubs [Jadid currently plays for Serie B club Grosseto, on loan from Parma].

With regards to the first team players, there was certainly a higher level of urgency and skill in their approach to their play. I was fortunate to see them in both training and during games, and their composure and reading of the game was the same. I think back now and realise that the standard I saw was probably reflective of a mid-bottom level club in Serie A (arguably the top league in the world at the time). So it still astounds me to think that if that was the standard there, imagine what it would have been at AC Milan, Roma or Inter?

What are your strengths as a player, and which famous attacker would you compare yourself to in terms of playing style?

Despite always being on the “slight” side in terms of body build, I think it’s contributed to my strengths as a player. My agility, balance, speed and ability to read the game are certainly up there as strengths. Playing in both Australia and the US, where the physical aspects of the game are more apparent, I have always had to ensure I made my mark on the game through other ways. And I think in that sense I can appreciate and admire how players like Xavi and Iniesta have been able to excel.  In terms of playing style and a player I most resemble, I’d have to say Pedro Rodriguez at Barcelona. I may not be as quick as I was, but I definitely see a bit of how I played, in him, whenever I watch Barca play.

Returning to matters closer to home, how far has football in Papua New Guinea come in recent years?

I think the introduction of the National Soccer League [in 2006] has certainly helped to create a nationalised league that challenges all clubs/franchises to operate in a semi-professional manner and strive to lift their standards, both on and off the field. I definitely think that the success of Hekari [winners of every NSL title since 2006, and OFC Champions League winners in 2010] has shown the rest of PNG that it is possible to achieve success at a domestic level and carry that on to a regional level too, and challenge the status quo. So in that sense, football has grown in leaps and bounds in the last few years. There can certainly be many more improvements in a domestic sense, but I think there has been enough of a foundation created that it is really up to us as players and future administrators and club management to continue to lift that standard.

What division in England would you compare the PNG National Soccer League to in terms of standard?

To be honest, apart from the Premier League and the understanding that there’s the “second” division below that, and so forth, I am not familiar at all with the divisions in England to make enough of an informed comparison. I would say that purely skill-wise, we would probably be comparable to the 3rd or 4th tier of the League [League One/League Two]. However in overall approach to the game (changing rooms, pre/post-game “rituals”, physios, training equipment, etc) I would say we are still near “Sunday League” level, unfortunately. It’s frustrating to say, but apart from Hekari, there is a huge gap in the approach to the game that most teams in the NSL have. The introduction of player payments/wages was supposed to bring the level up to “Semi-Professional”, however in my opinion it’s still lacking.

Lepani emulates his closest comparison in playing style, Barcelona forward Pedro, against Tahiti last year

What are the differences between top-flight football in PNG and in Europe? How big is local interest in the game?

PNG is the one country in the world that likes to boast that its national sport is Rugby League. This is certainly the case for support at a grassroots level.  Having said that, soccer has always had its following from different corners of the country. So when it comes to games and certain teams playing, there will always be followers of the game. Again, Hekari has certainly raised the profile of the game in recent years, and alongside the introduction of the NSL, coverage has become more national and therefore players more identifiable. Coverage on the national TV channel also assists in this. I still wouldn’t say it’s at the same level as rugby league players in the country, but still recognisable enough in certain crowds.

Port Moresby has always had 2 to 3 teams in the NSL at any given season, and due to the lack of suitable playing venues, most of those home games are held at the same field. So game days are often double headers. Because of that, crowd numbers are usually respectable (for PNG football standards) – up to 1,000. However for bigger games (O-League, Internationals), the crowds can swell to about 5,000 – 7,000. Lae, which has always been a stronghold for football players and supporters in the country also turns out in numbers for NSL games in Lae at the stadium there.

How did living in Belgium at a young age aid your football development, and how did the move come about? Belgium must be very different to PNG…

I was fortunate to have lived in Belgium for three years (’91-’94) when I was growing up, which helped to cement my footballing “upbringing”.  I didn’t become a teenager until I returned to PNG, but it still had a bit of a bearing on my “formative” years as a footballer. As I mentioned earlier, I think the “holistic” approach to the game really showed me what it’s like to play football in a setup that accepted that football is not only about what happens on the field during the game day.

I was fortunate enough to have lived in and experienced several cultures and countries growing up, due to my Dad’s work commitments. Belgium was no different. Our move there was due to Dad being posted there for work. Belgium  is definitely a huge change from PNG. Although I did live in Hawaii prior to Belgium, so that change in itself was also a major one.

Do you support any English or European clubs as a result of your travels abroad?

Simply put, FC Barcelona. I’ve actually been a fan ever since we lived in Belgium, and not just a recent convert like I’m sure millions of fans have been due to their recent incredible success. Their “original” dream team was just starting to gel and even at my age I recognised their brilliance. I was definitely fortunate to be living in Belgium at the time, so had access to TV and media coverage of them. So had I been in PNG I doubt I would have known of them, let alone most of the other European teams. Of course nowadays it’s easy to be drawn to support various teams due to their team make up (I enjoy the style of play of numerous players plying their trade in several top European teams), however I’m a stalwart fan of the Blaugrana. “Mes que un club”!

In England I do follow Arsenal (my brother’s team [Nathaniel’s brother Andrew has also represented PNG at international level]). An Italian close friend and teamate at Menlo, Chris Antinnuci convinced me of AS Roma’s merits. And I’ve been a fan of Totti ever since. In hindsight I was also unlucky to have missed Guardiola during his time at Brescia as well.

 How disappointed were you not to make the PNG 2012 Nations Cup squad? It must have been a bittersweet feeling to see that your brother Andrew was included, but you weren’t.

Extremely. I won’t go into details, but I did have a lengthy talk with the gaffer [former Australia boss Frank Farina] and was given a reason – I had an untimely accident which left a gash across my right knee requiring 7 stitches and one week out from training camp – for my ommission. I can’t say I blame him for that decision, considering that I agree that only the fittest and experienced of players should be selected. But I still feel that had I been given the opportunity to prove my fitness and see out the healing of my knee, that my experience and presence in the squad of 23 (regardless of whether I would have been a starter or not) would still have been beneficial and warranted. My brother has also struggled with juggling work commitments with national team duties, so in fact I’m extremely happy for him that he’s made it.

Nathaniel (bottom row, second-from-left) was overjoyed to play for Overijse while in Belgium

How much does it mean to represent your country against some of the best footballers in Oceania, and who is the best player you’ve ever faced?

For sure it means a lot. There’s so much passion and potential in Oceania that although we cannot be compared to the heights of Europe or South America or even Asia, there are still some very skillful players that I believe given the opportunity to play in established leagues in Europe would excel (although I’m not sure about the weather!).

I was fortunate enough to have played against the Australian U20s and U23s squads. And in both squads Nick Carle was a member. He may not have fulfilled his potential in Europe, but he’s one of the most skillful players I’ve been up against. I still remember our game against them at U20s level (they ran out winners 6-0). It was near cyclonic conditions – to be honest it was probably fortunate for us that the conditions were so horrendous, or else they really would have ripped us apart. But during the game that was literally played in puddles,  Nick would always be able to caress the ball and flick it up slightly to get it out of the water and just knock it patiently to his team mates. He helped to set Scott McDonald (another quality player) for a hat trick that game, if I remember correctly. But he was certainly the most skillful I had come up against.

 Finally, who do you tip to win this year’s Nations Cup? New Zealand will surely start as favourites, but the Solomon Islands are on home soil, and PNG have been labelled the “dark horses” of the competition…

I’ve just watched PNG fall to Solomons 0-1, so there goes my instinctual answer of PNG! And in the earlier game by all accounts the Kiwis [New Zealand] struggled in their 1-0 win over Fiji. On the face of it, New Zealand should just turn up at the tournament and walk away winners, such is the quality of their team of near fulltime professionals, compared to the majority of “amateurs” who make up the rest of the Pacific countries. But having the tournament hosted out of their comfort zone, always means the Kiwis are going to have to work for their win.

I still think they’ll go all the way to win it, but not without some strong challenges along the way. The Solomon Islands are on home soil, but if their first game is anything to go by, they’ll have to step up to go all the way. With the crowd behind them, maybe that’s the extra gear that they’ll need. Fiji should be able to bounce back from their loss and challenge as well. I see the winner of Fiji and Solomons as going through as the second placed team in the group. I’m sorry to say but after the 1-0 loss to Solomons and next game against New Zealand, PNG really are up against it to progress. Crazier things have happened, but we certainly are up against it.

Having said all that, I’ve been impressed with the Francophone teams, particularly New Caledonia – they play a particular style of football that stands them apart from the other Pacific teams. After several years of underachieving, I think Tahiti are also getting back to their best.

All in all, I think it’ll be an exciting few weeks of football. And I think even if New Zealand win, I think the performance of the teams will show that the gap is closing between New Zealand and the other Pacific nations.

Thanks for your time.

No problem at all.

Read more about Nathaniel’s club and international exploits here.

Photos: Baggio – greenobles.com; Lepani – Andrew Molen/Nathaniel Lepani; Overijse team – Tim Beeckmans.

New Zealand’s Young Football Ferns have thrashed the Cook Islands 7-0 in their first U-17 Championship match and already look set to qualify for the 2012 FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup in Azerbaijian, which starts in September. 

Underdogs Cook Islands held out for 18 minutes before New Zealand’s Martine Puketapu opened the scoring, and three further goals in the next eleven minutes sealed the victory before half-time. The Cook Islands started the second half in more determined fashion, and it took their more illustrious opponents until the 65th minute to score their fifth goal. After that, the Islands’ brief revival was ended and the floodgates opened once more as New Zealand scored twice in the space of five minutes.

The 7-0 final scoreline suggests that, as expected, New Zealand are the tournament favourites. Their dominance in the Oceania region regularly sees their opponents on the end of humiliating defeats, with the  All Whites even handing out double-figure thrashings against some of the confederation’s weaker teams. 


Papua New Guinea's Georgina Kaikas (left) celebrates her winner

Elsewhere, Papua New Guinea’s U-17 ladies earned a deserved 1-0 win over New Caledonia thanks to Georgina Kaikas’ impressive 18th minute strike from a corner. A constant threat, Kaikas should have opened the scoring after just eight minutes – after dispossessing New Caledonia goalkeeper Deborah Selefen and holding off the attentions of defender Priscilla Gohoupe, she somehow managed to miss the gaping goal from inside the penalty area.

The dismissal of New Caledonia captain Wakalane Ngaiohni just eight minutes into the second half ended her side’s slim chances of rescuing a point, and the skipper will be suspended for their next game. New Caledonia coach Kamalie Fitialata will have a job on his hands if he is to mould his team into serious Championship contenders. 


But for wasteful finishing, including multiple one-on-one chances, Papua New Guinea would have won by a larger margin. New Caledonia’s poor performance will leave them fearing a hammering in their clash with New Zealand in Auckland tomorrow – don’t be surprised if the game ends with New Zealand having reached double figures.


Like most of its New Zealand Football Championship (NZFC) colleagues, Waitakere United was founded in 2004 to compete in the newly-introduced top division of New Zealand football. Waitakere has grown to become the most successful club in the country, winning the NZFC more times (4) than any other side and qualifying for the OFC Champions League on multiple occasions.

Waitakere's crest reflects their club colours - red and white

In 2004-05, the league’s inaugural season, Waitakere finished up as runners-up but lost the Final 3-2 to table-toppers Auckland City. However, the following season failed to match this success as Waitakere slipped to a disappointing sixth-placed finish. The club bounced back well to finish top of the league in 2006-07, but once again were defeated 3-2 by Auckland in the final. 2007-08 saw Waitakere finally win their first championship, beating Team Wellington 2-0 in the final.

This win inspired the club to further success – although the following season they were beaten in the final by Auckland for the third time, Waitakere beat Canterbury United 3-1 in the 2009-10 final to secure a second championship in three years. In 2010-11 the club extracted revenge on enemies Auckland – a close final was swung Waitakere’s way by a last-minute own goal. The score-line, 3-2, also gave Auckland a taste of their own medicine.

Waitakere celebrate their all-conquering 2010-11 NZFC season

Waitakere have enjoyed two successful OFC Champions League campaigns: their first title in 2007, having only qualified for the competition after Vanuatu’s Port Vila Sharks withdrew, United beat Fiji’s Ba FC on away goals to earn the crown of Oceania’s best club. The second title came the following year – 3-1 down to Kossa FC of the Solomon Islands after the first leg, Waitakere recovered to cruise to a 5-0 win in the second leg and win the competition on aggregate. United again reached the final in 2010, but were beaten 4-2 by Papua New Guinean champions Hekari United.

These Champions League triumphs qualified the club for the FIFA World Club Championship Play-Offs, but in both 2007 and 2008, Waitakere fell at the tournament’s first hurdle. A 3-1 loss to Iran’s Sepahan FC in 2007 was followed by a narrow 2-1 defeat to Aussie side Adelaide United in 2008.

Waitakere’s squad boasts five English players, three of them goalkeepers. Daniel Robinson, a former Derby County and Blackpool youth-teamer, and previously of Burton Albion, is joined at the club by ex-Everton trainee, Northwich Victoria and Altrincham custodian Andrew Ralph, and Basingstoke-born Matthew Upton, nicknamed “Crouchy” at former club Auckland City. The club’s two English outfield players both have a wealth of experience from years spent playing with big clubs. 40 year old player-manager Neil Emblen, also the coach of New Zealand’s under-23 team, is an ex-Millwall, Wolves and Norwich midfielder, and fellow midfielder Martin Bullock has played at a high level for Barnsley and Blackpool, winning one England U-21 cap in the process.

Roy Krishna, regarded as the best player in the league, has attracted the interest of PSV

A multi-national squad is completed by Fiji international Roy Krishna, Papua New Guinea frontman Mauri Wasi and Solomon Islander Gagame Feni, formerly of Canterbury United. Forward Krishna is one of Oceania’s brightest young stars, and attracted the interest of Dutch giants PSV Eindhoven in March 2009 as well as impressing A-League clubs Wellington Pheonix and North Queensland Fury. The New Zealand Herald has called Krishna “the best player in the league” and has claimed “it has become apparent he has outgrown the NZFC”. Only 24, Krishna has scored 14 goals  in 19 games for Fiji, including hat-tricks against Kiribati, Samoa and Tuvalu, and both goals in a 2-0 win over New Zealand in the 2008 OFC Nations Cup. He is the key to Waitakere’s success, regularly ending seasons with a record of better than a goal every other game.

The club plays its home games at the 10,000-capacity Fred Taylor Park, but the ground’s limit is rarely reached. Waitakere play to average attendances of just 400 in the league, which is lower than some Isthmian league clubs’ crowds in England’s seventh tier, but normal for the New Zealand Football Championship. Indeed, Waitakere could consider themselves lucky to have such a “large” support – poor old YoungHeart Manawatu are regularly cheered on by just 100 fans.

Thankfully, Waitakere’s Champions League games and derbies with fellow Auckland club Auckland City attract more fans. Waitakere’s Champions League tie with Fijian club Ba FC in November 2011 saw an impressive 4,000 flock to Fred Taylor Park, and gates are swelled by several hundred when Auckland City come to visit.

The Whites began the 2011-12 campaign in incredible form, recording a 3-0 victory over Hawke’s Bay United before thumping Otago United 6-0 away. However, since then, the club has slipped to third place, and although Waitakere are only two points behind second-placed Canterbury, their chances of winning the championship are slim with Auckland seven points clear at the top. Five losses in their fourteen NZFC games have cost Waitakere dear, and they will have to go through the semi-finals if they are to win their fifth championship.

This season’s OFC Champions League campaign has been more successful – Waitakere will progress to the competition’s final unless Tahiti’s AS Tefana can beat Ba FC in  the last game of the group stage. United began the group stage in imperious fashion, thrashing ten-man Tefana 10-0 and thumping Ba by four goals. However, a 3-0 loss to Tefana at Tahiti’s Stade Louis Ganivet could prove costly – it leaves Waitakere relying on other results. Should Tefana slip up, Waitakere will reach the final, coming up against Auckland City (who else?). It proves to be an interesting season for Waitakere, one that could see them further cement themselves as New Zealand’s most successful club.

New Zealand have pulverized Papua New Guinea 15-0 over two legs to earn the right to represent Oceania at the 2012 London Olympics Women’s Football tournament. An 8-0 win on home soil was followed by a 7-0 thrashing in Papua New Guinea, who had won the first stage of the qualifiers by beating Tonga 2-0. 

PNG goalkeeper Linda Bunaga prepares to perform a familiar role - picking the ball out of the net

The one-sided nature of the two-legged final is another example of New Zealand’s dominance in the region. Papua New Guinea had proved to be stronger than their Stage One counterparts Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu, but against New Zealand’s Football Ferns, they were outclassed. With only one qualifying berth up for grabs in the Oceania Confederation, it would have to take a minor miracle for one of the smaller countries to usurp heavyweights New Zealand. 

The competition provided by other teams in Oceania is also not representative of New Zealand’s opponents at the London Olympics. Despite his side’s convincing 8-0 win in the first leg, coach Tony Readings admitted “there’s definitely things we still need to work on.” The confidence gained from their straightforward qualification could well be misplaced if New Zealand find themselves leaving the Olympic tournament at the first hurdle. 

New Zealand players celebrate their comfortable qualification

Papua New Guinea coach Steven Mune remained upbeat, saying “I’m really impressed with our ladies’ performance” and praising his team’s defending as “just awesome”. It is a sad fact that almost every qualifying tournament like this will end with a young, talented team overcoming their rivals in the early rounds only to be humiliated by the more experienced New Zealand in the final – even Papua New Guinea’s best was nowhere near enough.

Although OFC somewhat improved the situation in these qualifiers by excluding New Zealand from the first round, thereby avoiding more one-sided, demoralizing games, the problems still remain. The Football Ferns will join their male colleagues in London, and although the men’s side endured a more challenging qualifying tournament, their progress was still inevitable. 

After their first leg victory, New Zealand captain Rebecca Smith grinned “8 goals: it’s pretty fun for the fans”. That may be true, but the rest of the Confederation’s teams don’t seem to be having much fun at all. 

Since its formation in 2006, the Papua New Guinea National Soccer League has been hugely dominated by one team – PRK Hekari United. The side has won all five previous championships, and look to be on course for number six. Try as they might, the rest of the league simply cannot stop the Port Moresby-based club from strolling to victory.

This dominance is party due to Hekari’s superior squad, which boasts multiple internationals from Fiji and the Solomon Islands as well as PNG. Midfielder Pita Baleitoga has captained Fiji, experienced defender Taniela Waqa has been capped 32 times by the same country and Andrew Lepani, another midfielder, has a record of almost a goal every other game for Papua New Guinea. In short, Hekari have the best of both worlds, employing top players from at home and abroad.


Hekari United remain the country's team to beat

Chief among the clubs challenging Hekari for the NSL crown is Eastern Stars FC. Only joining the league in 2008, the side has quickly emerged as Hekari’s main threat, finishing as runners-up in 2010-11. Stars are also able to boast several Papua New Guinea internationals, such as club captain Cyril Muta and midfielder Michael Foster, as well as Solomon Islanders Timothy Joe and Karol Kakate. Despite what has been an impressive start to life for the club, the gap between Hekari and the rest of the league is best highlighted by the fact that despite currently lying in second place, Eastern Stars trail Hekari by 8 points – and Hekari have a game in hand.

Similarly, Hekari’s points total alone is more than that of league strugglers Petro Souths, Tukoko University and Bulolo United combined.   Thankfully, results when the also-rans meet have been more varied: Petro Souths were annihilated 7-0 by Eastern Stars on the opening day, but won two of their next three games and have since claimed the scalp of third-placed PNG United. Bottom club Bulolo United were comfortably beaten by mid-table outfit Gigira Laitepo and even lost 3-0 to Tukoko, a side just one point better off. The fact that they then not only held but fully matched Eastern Stars away from home in a 0-0 draw shows just how open and unpredictable the rest of the league is.

The NSL's success has increased the standard of football in Papua New Guinea

It may be several years before other clubs reach a position where they are able to challenge Hekari for silverware, but it is clear that the quality of the National Soccer League is improving each year. Five years ago it would have been unlikely that players from abroad would even consider moving to a Papuan club. The Fijian and Solomon leagues have traditionally held up better against teams from New Zealand in the OFC Champions League, but the tide may be turning.

The league is also managing to tempt Papua New Guinean players back to their homeland. Nathaniel Lepani left the country in 2002 to join college side Menlo Oaks in the USA, before joining Brisbane City in Australia. Lepani returned to PNG in 2009 and has re-made a name for himself with Eastern Stars and Gigiria Laitepo.

While the National Soccer League may look unappealingly one-sided from the outside, the truth is that football in Papua New Guinea is on the up. It may not be long before Brazilian and African imports begin to further improve the quality of the league, and although Hekari’s dominance is clear to see, the open nature and unpredictability of the majority of fixtures makes this championship one worth keeping an eye on.